The Earthy, Unforgettable Mailer

Norman was more generous to his fellow scribes than any writer I have ever known, sharing his time, advice and the puzzles of his craft. His biographer, Mike Lennon, has uncovered more than 50,000 letters Norman wrote to fellow writers and friends, more than 5,000 of them to young writers. He read hundreds of manuscripts, offering suggestions and criticisms, providing hundreds of blurbs or praise, each one original, each one written in his distinctive style.

How he would have relished hearing the [Norman Mailer Writer’s] Colonists speak of the value they’ve found in sharing their work, even at the price of unsparing criticism from their fellow writers. “You get a wonderful sense of audience,” Mailer once said of his own experience in writing classes. And it also chops down that terribly unstable vanity that young writers have, where they think, “Oh, I’m a great writer,” and at the same time, they cannot take a single criticism, and writing courses are good for that. They weather you. It’s a little bit like a kid who wants to play Varsity football but never tries out for the team. So you go to that writing class, and “you get toughed up a bit,” he said. In writing to fellow writers who had asked him to read their manuscripts, Norman himself pulled no punches.

He believed that “a writer learns best about his craft from a critic who delineates his faults, even as he praises his strengths.” And so he wrote to one fellow writer, “There’s no doubt in my mind that you have a publishable book. But you’ve got to get a good editor, for you write very well in one way, but abominably in another way.” To another who had just begun working on a novel, he wrote, “If you say you’ve written 150 pages, and start it over and are now writing in confusion, recognize that’s not at all unlikely. Part of writing a novel is to get from that space in one’s self that wakes up in the morning, brushes one’s teeth, etcetera, over into that other voice, which is the narrative voice, which is the style, which is the center of consciousness, or the center of intelligence, or whatever you want to call it in the novel. It is this voice that is sheer hell to get. And once you get it, the work tends to get easier.”

And then to still another: “You’re going to have to work hard, and I think you’re still a couple years away, but you have got it. And I don’t write that every day. My secretary will tell you.” He believed, he said, that “if something is not good enough, one’s friends are only hurting one’s sense of reality if they neglect to tell you.”

If there are secrets to be imparted, however, the main lesson resides in Mailer’s understanding of what it took to be a professional writer. His work days in Provincetown followed a rigorous routine—breakfast, the newspapers, a few crossword puzzles or games of Solitaire, then up to that third-floor office where he would work until 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon with absolutely no interruptions, no e-mails, no phone calls; then lunch, a nap and a second shift of work until 8:30 or 9:00 when he would break for dinner, often with friends, who, having already begun the cocktail hour as they waited so long for him to come down, rose unsteadily on their feet to greet him.

How he loved those dinner conversations, sparked with stories, debates and arguments. Whether the subject was politics, boxing, movies, theater, Marilyn Monroe, Ramses IX, the Devil or Jesus Christ, he was equally at home, and he had a remarkable capacity to transmit his enthusiasm to others. Then, when the dinner guests left, some TV, finally bed around midnight and, the next morning, the same routine began again. Over the years, Mailer said, “I found one rule, a simple rule: If you tell yourself you’re going to be at the desk tomorrow, you are, by that declaration, asking your unconscious to prepare the material. ‘Count on me,’ you are saying to a few forces below, ‘I will be there to write.’ What gets easier as you get older,” he continued, “is that one’s professionalism increases over the years. By professionalism,” he explained, “I mean the ability to work on a bad day. As you become a professional, you become more dogged, more able to endure a certain amount of drudgery.”

Like a great pitcher who becomes more canny when his fastball slows, Mailer became more focused, more complex, less smug, with greater powers of self-knowledge as he grew older. He loved to stay at our house whenever he was in Boston to visit his doctor or deliver a lecture. He and my husband had been good friends for nearly half a century, and I had known him for more than 30 years. The last time he stayed, some weeks before he died, produced one of my favorite memories of this earthy, unforgettable man.

When he came down to breakfast from the guest suite above our library, where he always stayed, he began talking about how much he liked the room, the sun that streamed into the windows, the comfort of the bed, the pattern
of the carpet on the stairs. But there was a problem, he said. And it had become more troubling as he grew older. It seems that the toilet seat was too low or the water level too high. “Either way,” he said, it created big trouble for him, “for as a man grows older,” he explained
to me, “your balls tend to hang down more and more until finally you are in the toilet water itself.” We laughed and laughed. And I promised him that we would get a new toilet for his next visit, which never took place. But every time I go into that bathroom, and I see that new toilet, I think of our great friend Norman Mailer.

At breakfast that next morning, his blue eyes still clear beneath his shaggy brows, he told us that he knew he was dying. His “long journey was coming to an end,” he said. And he felt as if he “were heading to shore.” The man may be gone, but his animating spirit lives on. The example of his writing life, his generosity to others and his indomitable sense of purpose will inspire young writers for years to come.

Excerpted from remarks made at the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony Gala, Oct. 20, 2009.

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Doris Kearns Goodwin

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